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Syria Feature: Who Are the Jihadists? (O'Bagy)

Insurgents at a funeral in Aleppo Province with Islamic flag, 16 September 2012 (Photo: Zain Karam/Reuters)

Elizabeth O'Bagy publishes a lengthy study for the Institute for the Study of War, "Jihad in Syria":

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Assad and other regime officials have emphasized the role of foreign-backed terrorists and radical jihadists. in an interview on August 29, Assad denied the existence of civil protests in syria and spoke of the “foreign backed conspiracy” threatening his country. “Many people were misled in the beginning, thinking that what is happening is a state of excitement, a wave of the ‘arab spring’…. [But it] isn’t a revolution or a spring; it is terrorist acts in the full meaning of the word,” he proclaimed. This refrain has been a critical component of the regime’s propaganda campaign, and its primary justification for its harsh crackdown of the Syrian opposition.

The regime’s insistence that jihadist radicals and terrorists instigated and perpetuated the Syrian conflict is indefensible. The Syrian uprising began as a popular resistance against autocracy. Yet as the conflict drags on, a radical Islamist dynamic has emerged within the opposition, and it warrants further scrutiny. The vast majority of syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries who espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor. However, there is a small but growing Salafi-jihadist presence inside Syria. The Syrian Salafi-jihadists have been aided by foreign fighters, some with significant capabilities and connections to al-Qaeda and other international jihadist networks. Their presence among the opposition galvanizes Assad’s support base and complicates U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The jihadist elements now operating inside Syria are not starting from scratch. The Syrian government’s history of sponsoring terrorism over the last three decades contributed to the jihadist foothold in the country. The Syrian intelligence apparatus has long cultivated ties with these groups; moreover, it has solidified robust logistics networks that facilitate jihadist activity. As Syrian intelligence services became preoccupied with the syrian uprising in 2011, these jihadist elements turned against their former regime allies and are now cooperating with local jihadists.

in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, jihadist elements and extremists did not have major networks on the ground where they could exploit their own authority and influence in those revolutions. In Syria, however, they do have those networks. due to Syria’s long-standing policy of supporting terrorist networks, these dangerous elements have built robust logistical lines that they have built up over the past decades. Moreover, these networks could allow more radical groups to infiltrate the mainstream Syrian opposition and use it as a platform to prop up their own ideological objectives.

Local revolutionaries have maintained control of the current opposition movement, and these jihadists have not assumed a dominant role in the conflict. This does not mean that the Syrian opposition movement is entirely in the hands of secular revolutionaries; a great proportion of syrian opposition forces wish to institute political Islamist reform in the wake of the assad regime. This has led to growing concerns about the Islamification of the opposition movement and fears that revolutionaries have lost sight of the democratic and pluralistic principles that once defined the core of Syrian civil protests.

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